THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY
In 1300 the signs that the greatness of the thirteenth century had passed could not be read with the clarity now possible. As the century advanced and witnessed a succession of conflicts, wars, and disasters, the decline became clearer. World-shaking events, each a blow to the stability and vitality of Christendom, followed one another with the speed of lightning. The quarrels between Pope Boniface VIII and King Philip the Fair of France, which had begun earlier, opened the century; the Western Schism, stretching from 1378 to 1418, during which rival popes contested the throne of Peter, closed it. In between lay the suppression of the Order of the Knights Templar, the struggle of the popes with Emperor Louis of Bavaria, and the opening of the Hundred Years War between England and France (1337). In the very middle of the century, the bubonic plague, called the Black Death, took the lives of one-third to one-half the population of Europe in two years' time. Society, Church, clergy, and Orders suffered from these disasters.
The Dominican Order still stood forth in the fullness of its strength and influence in 1300. It could hope for a future full of life and fruitful activity. Pope John XXII had high praise for it in 1317: "Endowed above other Orders with a richer grace of service, the Order of Preachers radiates a greater clarity:" In 1325 John rejoiced over the "starlike splendor of this Order and the firmness of its organization for the service of God." Two years earlier he had canonized Thomas Aquinas.
Despite this glory, signs of decay were evident. Religious discipline was declining, and mitigation of personal and corporate poverty had set in. In addition, the missions had suffered a blow in 1291, when the Saracens took Acre, the last Christian foothold in Palestine.
The Masters General
The first two masters of the fourteenth century had short terms of office. Albert Chiavari lived only three months after his election in 1300. Bernard of Jusix, elected in 1301, died two years later. During this period, Pope Boniface VIII issued the bull, Super cathedram, which regulated the conflict between the friars and the diocesan clergy. Its stipulation that the mendicant Orders should pay to the diocesan clergy a fourth of the income derived from their ministry, including legacies, worked great hardships and placed the strict poverty of the Order in danger. Though the successor of Boniface, the Dominican Benedict XI, repealed the bull, Clement V reissued it.
Two masters general governed the Order between 1304 and 1317. Elected in 1304, Aylmer of Piacenza resigned in 1311 because, it was rumored, he was not sympathetic to the suppression of the Knights Templar. Berengar of Landorra governed from 1312 to 1317. He was followed by Hervey of Nedellec, an outstanding theologian (1318-1323), Barnabas Cagnoli of Vercelli (1324-1332), and Hugh of Vaucemain (1333-1341). Hugh came into conflict with Benedict XII, who was planning to reform the Order as he had the Cistercians, Franciscans and Canons Regular. The pope began by calling the master general and about twenty prominent friars to Avignon to consult with them about the subject. For this reason he cancelled the general chapter, scheduled to meet in 1338. Benedict ran into the stone-wall resistance of the general, who withstood his plans until death. Contemporary sources are vague in reporting the reasons for his opposition, and no agreement exists among modern historians. Hugh did not object to the elimination of abuses; actually, he and chapters he convened enacted many ordinances to stop them. The conflict went much deeper. Contemporaries indicate that Benedict contemplated making fundamental changes in the Dominican Constitutions. Mortier and Mandonnet suggest that Benedict wanted the Order to change from its strict poverty without ownership to dependence on property-holding and fixed income, but this does not seem to have been the case. Not choosing to impose his ideas, Benedict sought to gain his objectives through the voluntary cooperation of the master and the leading men of the Order. Their refusal to accept his plans caused the clash. With the deaths of the two antagonists (Hugh of Vaucemain died in 1341; Benedict in 1342), the danger of an essential modification in the Constitutions had passed.
Hugh of Vaucemain began a series of French masters general who governed the Order until 1379, a year after the outbreak of the Western Schism. Hugh's four immediate successors had short terms, owing to death or promotion. Gerard of Domaro de la Garde, elected on May 18, 1342, had governed but four months when Clement VI, his relative, appointed him cardinal on September 20. He enjoyed his new dignity not much longer than he had the generalate, dying fifty-three weeks after his appointment. Pierre of Baume-les-Dames held office from his election in 1343 until his death in 1345. His successor, Garin de Gyl'évêque (1346), fell victim to the plague in August, 1348. John of Moulins, elected the following Spring, became a cardinal in December, 1350. Such brief terms were unfortunate in a time when leadership was needed to check the worsening state of religious spirit and discipline. The intervals between generals and the shortness of their tenures impeded effective leadership and accentuated the drift toward decline.
Then followed two longer generalates. During his fourteen years of leadership, Simon of Langres (1352-1366) made a determined attempt to deal with the major problems and the havoc wrought in the Order, as in the Church itself, by the Black Death. This sternness apparently earned Simon the dubious distinction of being the only general turned out of office by the Order itself -- invalidly. His inability to give full attention to the Order, owing to the frequent diplomatic missions the pope entrusted to him, probably added to the murmuring against him. The general chapter of 1360 removed him from office by the; narrow vote of eight to six. The minority diffinitors, joined by other friends, appealed to Innocent VI who invalidated the action. Six years later, Urban V terminated Simon's services to the Order by appointing him Bishop of Nantes. His ability and the eighteen years he lived after his elevation -- he was master in theology, an able diplomat, and had been provincial of France -- indicate the loss the Order sustained when he was made a bishop.
Fortunately Simon's place was taken by Elias Raymond, who also had a lengthy term. Elected in 1367, he governed the entire Order until the Western Schism divided it. As a Frenchman, Simon followed his country in 1379 in giving allegiance to Clement VII, the antipope who had taken up residence at Avignon. Elias continued as general until his death in 1389 in the Avignon Obedience of the Order.
The provinces that remained faithful to Urban VI, the first of the Roman line of papal claimants, elected Raymond of Capua, spiritual director and disciple of Catherine of Siena, in 1380. He lived until 1399. Meanwhile three masters general governed in the Avignon Obedience -- Nicholas of Troia, a Neopolitan, Nicholas of Valladolid, a Spaniard, and John of Puinoix, a Frenchman, natives of the areas and provinces that followed Avignon. The last of the three held office from 1399 to the end of the Schism in 1418. Then he resigned and the Council of Constance rewarded him with an episcopate.
The Order did not escape the doubt and confusion that settled over Christendom when the Western Schism began. Since it was almost impossible for any but those closest to events to judge correctly the claims of the papal rivals, nations settled their allegiance to one or other claimant on the basis of national interest. Divided countries or border regions saw rival claimants to bishoprics and abbeys. Orders that were united under a central government, like the Dominicans, followed a similar pattern. The French, Spanish, and Neopolitan provinces, and the friars of Scotland gave allegiance to Avignon; the others adhered to Rome. After 1380 the Order had a double series of general chapters and masters general. The province of Germany, located in a politically divided country, had two provincials, but the larger number of priories followed Peter Eglin, who was loyal to Rome. The universal doubt is symbolized by the Dominican saints of the time. Closer to the facts, Catherine of Siena and Raymond of Capua served Urban VI of Rome. Vincent Ferrer used all his eloquence and learning to persuade the clergy, kings, and peoples of the Spanish Peninsula to unite behind Clement VII, the Avignon claimant.
The Order changed its Constitutions in 1374 to permit the summoning of general chapters every two or three years instead of annually, a move undoubtedly influenced by the unsettled conditions of the age -- the papal conflicts, the Hundred Years War, the Black Plague, and the Schism. The new measure also worked a subtle change in Dominican government, increasing the power and influence of the general and decreasing that of the chapters. In line with the growing power of kings in the political field, this change may reflect a lessening of confidence in representative procedures within the Order. The following table illustrates the declining influence of the chapters.
Number of General Chapters 306
13th century 75 14th century 76 18 chapters were held during the 14-15 centuries in the Avignon Obedience 15th century 47 16th century 28 17th century 20 18th century 6 19th century 11 20th century 24 (including the 1974 chapter)
Though the general chapter has met less frequently since 1370, it continues to be a powerful bond of unity. It supplies the master general with advice, counsel, and information about the Order, implements his programs, acquaints the leading friars of the Order with one another, provides concerted action, and makes new laws. Dominican history seems to show that the general chapter acts as a barometer. When it meets regularly and does its work thoroughly, the Order's discipline and ministry seem to flourish. Infrequent meetings appear to accompany periods of stagnation.
When the chapters became less frequent, more of the Order's business fell into the hands of the master. Though we have no means of comparison, since the letters of Raymond of Capua are the first to survive, a look at his Register shows the multiplicity of cases that reached his desk. Many of his decisions, it would seem, should have been handled at the local level of government. Probably the troubled times of Schism and the low state of discipline partly account for this recourse to higher authority.
Though the general's position was strengthened by the infrequency of chapters, he found his authority curbed by the appointment of a cardinal protector, a new feature in Dominican life. The Order's strong government was exercised with so much corporate responsibility that, contrary to the practice of the Holy See with regard to other Orders, it did not appoint a protector for it until 1373, when Gregory XI named Cardinal William of Agrifolia. The protector's duties were never clearly defined, but expanded as time went on. During the next two centuries, they widened to such an extent that the cardinal began to deal with the internal affairs of the Order in the same manner as the master. The conflict between reformed and unreformed friars during the fifteenth century, and the trend toward centralization that developed in the Church itself during the sixteenth, account for this growth. Since 1887, when Leo XIII assumed personal protection of the Order, recent popes have acted in this capacity.
When the provinces were first divided between 1284 and 1303, their number climbed to eighteen. Seventy-five years later the fission process began again. The chapter of 1378 made the island of Sicily a province and took the first step toward making Dalmatia one. Urban VI declared it a province later that year when the Schism began. The new provinces were smaller than their predecessors, permitting greater cohesion among the friars and closer contact between them and the provincials.
The Preaching Ministry
Despite the lower level of its religious life, the Order continued to develop noteworthy preachers. In the first half of the century, James Passavanti exercised a fruitful preaching ministry in the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, where he was one of the leading friars for many years. He was also a spiritual writer whose works influenced the developing Italian vernacular. He composed his Mirror of True Penance from the elements of a Lenten course preached in 1354. The work strongly reflects the troubled times that followed on the plague. It emphasizes the fear of God, though Passavanti also mentions the joy that comes from a penitential life.
At the peak of a successful preaching career in 1335, Venturino of Bergamo sought to bring peace to the troubled cities of northern Italy through preaching and by leading a pilgrimage to the Eternal City. The progress of the pilgrims through Italy was marked by great enthusiasm and signs of penance wherever they passed. After the pilgrimage had been in Rome for some days and the problem of feeding and housing many thousands of pilgrims became acute, Venturino panicked in a moment of weakness and fled secretly. The irrepressible friar quickly regained his composure and traveled to Avignon, hoping to interest Benedict XII in a crusade. Instead, the irate pontiff scolded him for coming unannounced into the papal apartments, penanced him for imprudent remarks made during the pilgrimage, and for the disturbances it caused in Rome. Then he banished him to a remote priory. Clement VI, the next pope, rehabilitated him in 1343 and sent him off to preach a crusade in Lombardy. After a year of preaching, Venturino joined the crusading army and accompanied it to Smyrna. There he died in 1346 after an exhausting month preaching, encouraging the besieged crusaders, and nursing the sick.
Venturino also ranks as a writer of spiritual letters and treatises. He corresponded with the German Dominican mystics, and was friendly with John Tauler, also a great preacher. Venturino, Moister Eckhart, Henry Suso, and Tauler worked closely with nuns, preaching to them and guiding them. This was also true of John Dominici, an outstanding preacher toward the end of the century. Venice, Pisa, and Florence enjoyed his powerful lenten courses. He established the monastery of Corpus Christi in Venice and sent the nuns numerous letters dealing with the spiritual life.
The preachers of the Order also continued to publish sermon collections and other homiletic writings. Thomas of Wales produced an important book on the method of preaching. John Bromyard, another English Dominican, completed a homiletic encyclopedia, the Summa praedicantiurn, just before 1350. A vast alphabetical collection of theological lore and sermon materials, it was a valuable source book for preachers. Historians now find it important for studying the preaching and culture of the century.
In the late fourteenth century Archbishop Fitzralph of Dublin renewed the attacks the diocesan clergy had made on the ministry of the friars a century before. He carried his complaints to the papal court, but though he was an able orator and writer, Fitzralph was unable to gain any alteration in the basic relationship between the religious and diocesan clergy.
Studies and Theology
As the Order entered its second century, it could be proud of its academic record and the eminence of its theologians. It had appreciated Thomas Aquinas and valued his doctrine during his lifetime and defended both after his death. During the opening years of the fourteenth century the Order took a more determined stand in favor of his doctrine. The impetus was provided by Durandus of Saint Pourçain, one of its most talented members, during the academic year of 1307-1308. As a bachelor of the Sentences at Paris, he developed opinions notably different from Thomas. Obviously reacting to Durandus, the 1309 chapter required lectors and sub-lectors to teach according to the doctrine of Thomas and students to study his works diligently. Those who failed to comply were "to be punished gravely and quickly." In 131`? Durandus took his licentiate; Clement V appointed him to teach at the papal university before Lent, 1313. The chapter of that year then spoke even more decidedly in favor of Thomism, commanding that no brother dare in his teaching "to assert anything contrary to what is commonly believed to be the opinion" of Thomas; lectors were ordered to expound some of his articles. The chapter required provincials to watch over the work of lectors and remove those who violated its commands. It revived a thirteenth-century measure calling for the censorship of books. The next chapter entrusted the immediate supervision of lectors and students to the student master.
The Order was not only concerned with Thomism when it took these steps. It felt that the opinions of Durandus endangered the teaching of the Church. The 1313 ordinance stipulated that lectors were not to "dare to assert anything contrary to the common judgment of the doctors" in matters pertaining to faith or morals, except to refute it. Under attack Durandus did modify some of his extreme views.
A number of able scholars, who ranked with the disciples of Thomas in their solidity and depth of doctrine and loyalty to their master, matched the learning of Durandus. The foremost was Hervey of Nedellec, who became master general in 1318, and waged a theological war with Durandus that lasted for almost two decades. The others were John of Naples, Peter de la Palu, John of Lausanne, James of Viterbo, William Peter Godin, and Armand of Belvezer. Almost all of them were drawn into the literary controversy with Durandus.
The Order also took steps to keep its studies at the peak of efficiency. The 1305 chapter devoted attention to the Order's academic organization, issuing directions for the houses of studies. The chapters of 1313 to 1315 promulgated detailed instructions for students and professors. They adjusted the number of students to be sent to each house and regulated the appointment and teaching of professors. To ensure efficient academic performance, they set up norms for attendance at lectures, protected the rights and privileges of students, curbed any extraneous activities on their part, and provided for their books and clothing. They called on priories to stock or establish their libraries.
The Durandus affair was not the only theological concern of Dominicans during these years. Master General Barnabas Cagnoli of Vercelli and other theologians took a determined stand against an erroneous opinion that Pope John XXII held as a private theologian. John maintained that those who died in grace would not enjoy the Beatific Vision until judgment day. The courageous opposition of Thomas of Wales, who preached against the opinion at Avignon, John's residence, cost him many years in the papal prison.
Controversy with the disciples of Duns Scotus also began at this time. Scotus was a Franciscan contemporary of Durandus who also worked out an original system of theology. His most notable contribution was to lay down the principle which enabled theologians to develop the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. With few exceptions, Dominican theologians challenged this and other points in the teaching of Scotus. They kept up resistance to the Immaculate Conception for centuries because they thought Thomas had opposed it, waging a losing battle against its increasing acceptance by theologians and the faithful. Even the Spanish Dominican provinces endorsed it. Nevertheless, the Dominican stand was very important for the development of the doctrine and illustrates how doctrines are clarified. They forced its defenders to re-examine their position constantly. The last serious problems raised by the Immaculate Conception were not adequately solved for several centuries and were not completely removed until its definition in 1854.
The posture adopted by the Order and its theologians during the Durandus, Beatific Vision, and Immaculate Conception controversies indicate that its awareness of its doctrinal mission in the Church had already evolved.
Despite this doctrinal activity, the Order's intellectual life began to suffer as scholasticism declined and religious discipline decayed. Dominican schools and scholars were hurt by the Black Death. Later in the century, academic efforts were again hampered by the Western Schism. Perhaps these facts explain the failure of Thomists, who had reacted vigorously to Durandus and other opponents, to recognize the dangers inherent in Nominalism, a new school of thought headed by William of Ocham. The Church itself pronounced no formal condemnation. By the end of the century, Nominalism had made the University of Paris its chief stronghold and, in the fifteenth century, gained a strong position at German universities. Thomas Holcot, an English Dominican, did not escape its influence, and Thomas Crathorn, another member of the English province, completely accepted it. The first Thomistic challenge to Nominalism came from John Capreolus early in the next century.
The German Dominican Mystics
During the fourteenth century, as in other periods of trouble and trial, men looked to the spiritual leaders for hope and guidance. The divisions, strife, and war that accompanied the lengthy controversy between the popes and the Emperor turned the minds of good people toward prayer and penance as the answer to the vexing problems of the time. Mysticism flowered up and down the Rhine Valley. Jan van Ruysbroeck led the movement in the Netherlands, the Dominicans in Germany.
The Order's own contemplative apostolic life, aiming at intimate union with God, bears within itself the seeds of mysticism. Historically, the Dominican preaching and teaching ministry forged links between the friars and people who thirsted for a life of union with God-priests, nuns, laymen, and beguines (celibate women who lived a spiritual life without vows, either singly or in community). Dominic and Jordan of Saxony established the ties that existed between Dominican friars and nuns. Henry of Cologne, Siger of Lille, and Walter of Strassburg worked among devout women in Ghent, Lille, and Germany. St. Juliana of Liege derived support largely from Dominicans when she struggled to introduce the feast of Corpus Christi. Henry of Halle and other friars were closely associated with St. Gertrude and the two Saint Mechtildas at the Cistercian monastery of Helfta, within whose walls devotion to the Sacred Heart flourished.
The German mystics of the fourteenth century were the heirs of this tradition of cooperation with religious people. Though others were drawn within the radius of the German mystical movement, Dominicans were predominant. It traces its origins to Albert the Great and his disciples. Meister Eckhart (d. 1327), was its theoretician, John Tauler (d. 1361) its preacher, and Henry .Suso (d. 1366) its poet. A wide circle of religious and lay people, called Friends of God, who worked and prayed for spiritual renewal, gathered around these leaders. The mysticism of the school is called speculative, because it sought to probe and record the depths of man's sanctification and union with God. This is especially true of the writings of Eckhart. His writings and those of Tauler and Suso are the monuments of German mysticism. Suso's Little Book of Eternal Wisdom, one of the best-loved works of the Middle Ages, is a perennial classic. A remarkable series of biographies and chronicles, written in seven of the monasteries, bears witness to the intense mystical life that flowered among the Dominican nuns during this time.
In 1309, about a year after Meister Eckhart's death, John XXII condemned as heretical seventeen propositions extracted from his writings and eleven others as rash and suspect of heresy. Convinced of his good intentions and innocence, Eckhart spent too much time during his defense emphasizing his orthodoxy and failed to challenge the propositions. This poorly conceived defense, together with the unscientific method of judging propositions outside their context, explains why theologians could place under a cloud the teaching and memory of a theologian who was never a willing heretic.
Dealing with profound and difficult concepts, often in the vernacular, Eckhart tried to convey the fruits of his own deep experiences and reflection. Using a vigorous style in tune with the spirit of the German language, he produced a prose that was unmatched at the time and exercised a lasting influence on the German tongue. As a developing language, it was inadequate for conveying the profound ideas about God and the soul that are difficult to express in any language. Eckhart often coined words or adapted Latin idioms to serve his purpose and occasionally used paradox and hyperbole. In addition, his hearers sometimes took down his words inaccurately. At times he himself was not sufficiently precise. It is not surprising then that some of his comments lend themselves to a pantheistic or a quietistic interpretation. A discerning reader or one using a text accompanied by explanatory notes, might read his works with profit.
The German Dominicans did not have a monopoly on spiritual writings or mysticism. A number of authors also flourished in Italy. James Passavanti and Venturino of Bergamo have already appeared in another part of this chapter. Catherine of Siena, a member of the Third Order, was the greatest of them all. As far as can be judged here below, she surpassed the German mystics in personal holiness and outstripped her own countrymen in the excellence of her writing-the Dialogue of Divine Providence, her prayers, and her letters. They are all rich in doctrine.
A true Dominican, Catherine undertook works of mercy, especially the care of the sick, guided an ever-growing family of disciples, and sought to bring peace to the warring families of the Tuscan countryside. Deeply concerned for the welfare and reform of the Church, she worked for the reconciliation of Florence and Gregory XI, contributed to the definitive return of the popes from Avignon to Rome, and did all she could to heal the Western Schism, which broke out two years before her death. In her anguish over the suffering Church, she offered herself as a victim for it. Surrounded by disciples, she died in Rome on April 29, 1380. The Life o f Catherine, written by Raymond of Capua, her confessor, and various minor pieces, record her apostolic works and mystical experiences. Pius II, a fellow Sienese, canonized her. Pius XII named her and Francis of Assisi the chief patron saints of Italy, and Paul VI declared her a Doctor of the Church.
The Decline of Spirit and Discipline
Late in its first century, the Order entered a decline-decay crisis that reached a climax in widespread collapse of spirit and religious discipline. The crisis originated in the multiplicity of problems that characterized the times and plagued the Church and all the Orders. Besides, at the middle of the century (13421352) four masters general had such short terms of office that the Order lacked firm leadership at a critical time. The Order's own ideals now began to work against it. Its strict discipline, poverty and the incessant study required for the preaching ministry demand a constant renewal of zeal. What the early generations of friars had been able to do because of their dedication and spirit, their brothers of the fourteenth century failed to achieve. The tensions inherent in the contemplative apostolic life became destructive when they were not solved by men of strong motivation and zeal.
The signs of decline began to appear about 1290. They became notably worse about 1325 and reached their peak after the Black Death, 1348-1349. The general confusion that descended on the Church thirty years later, when the Western Schism began, made it more difficult to deal with these problems. The Order made a valiant attempt to solve them. The encyclicals of the masters general and the ordinances and admonitions of general chapters lashed out at prevailing abuses. The number of ordinances and admonitions increase in scope and number after 1325. By mid-century they have become very long, covering complete pages of printed text, regulating points of religious life, study, and ministry.
The progress in decline can be seen by comparing the encyclicals of Munio of Zamora with those of Hervey Nedellec. In his 1285 encyclical Munio demanded a more serious practice of poverty, more attention to silence, and greater love of the cell. In another letter ~ he spoke against idleness and required greater devotion to study. Forty years later (1323) , while extolling the virtues of the common life-love, peace, humility, voluntary poverty, and purity of life-and calling for dedication to study and the preaching ministry, Hervey of Nedellec demanded that superiors punish the unruly and insolent who were not living up to their obligations. He himself intended to deal with friars who presumed to throw off the religious yoke and, with the aid of outsiders, ambitiously sought to improve their position. Hervey's tone and the points he deals with indicate a change for the worse since the days of Munio.
The accelerating decline that was evident when Hervey wrote turned to decay twenty-five years later after the bubonic plague had done its work. Statistics speak louder than words. In Florence, 80 Dominicans died, in Pisa, 40, in Lucca, 20, in Basel, 11. The Florentine monastery of St. James at Ripoli lost 100 nuns. The province of Provence lost 378 members. After burying all the Franciscans of Carcassonne and his own brethren, William of Carrie also sank into the grave. Imitating townspeople who tried to avoid infection by fleeing to the countryside, frightened friars deserted their infected priories. The epidemic recurred, especially in 1401 when theAvignon Obedience lost 1,100 Dominicans.
The Black Death left behind it empty priories and devastated provinces. Herculean efforts and wise policies were needed for the rebuilding of community life. All the Orders made two important mistakes. They tried to man all their empty priories, spreading their personnel too thin, and they recruited young and poorly educated boys who were so immature that they had to be given wholesale dispensations from religious discipline. When they grew older, these boy-religious were so accustomed to a soft life that no one could call them to anything stricter.
The difficulty of implementing the poverty of the Order, which forbade holding possessions and fixed revenues, was one of the chief causes of decline. Suited to a small band of dedicated, mature, and trained preachers, strict poverty posed great problems as soon as the Order's membership climbed into the thousands. In the fourteenth century, priories began to hold properties, rents, annuities, and fixed incomes. They acquired mills, granges, houses, and endowments. The practice began innocently enough in the thirteenth century, when the generosity of the faithful could no longer keep pace with the Order's growing numbers and expanding curriculum of studies. Larger buildings, more books, and increased income were needed to care for larger numbers of young untrained men. In some places the friars gave silent witness to their declining spirit when they built large and costly churches, cloisters, and buildings with the help of rich benefactors.
The acquisition of properties in the cities caused external difficulties as well. Municipal governments and townspeople often resented the loss of property that could be taxed and inherited. They imposed sanctions on the friars; in some places boycotted and blocked their priories. Strassburg and Cologne exiled the community until a compromise was reached. Political conflicts also made the practice of poverty burdensome. When Dominicans remained loyal to the pope and preached the ecclesiastical penalties against Louis of Bavaria, cities loyal to the Emperor forbade their citizens to give alms to the friars or exiled them, as at Constance and Strassburg, the communities of Suso and Tauler.
As the Order found it increasingly difficult to care for them, friars developed independent resources. They appealed to their families and friends for books, habits, and necessities. Abuse set in when friars sought comfort and security by acquiring legacies, gifts, and annuities. Vanity in clothing appeared; habits were made of better cloth, or ampler cut, and were often decorated with rows of buttons, wide cuffs, pleats, and sometimes trains. Friars with incomes preempted space in the dormitories, turned cells into rooms, or built apartments with private entrances through which servants, friends, and women could enter. Cells were lavishly decorated and became the place for frivolous and lengthy recreations. Talented friars vied to become preachers general and to graduate as masters for the sake of the honor, privileges, and perquisites. Softness of life, accompanied by laxity of discipline and neglect of learning, entered Dominican priories. After 1350 the choir, refectory, and classrooms were deserted as often as they were frequented. Only poor friars who could not provide well for themselves came to the refectory. When the bottom was reached, tradesmen wheeled their carts into the refectory and peddled their wares to friars who could pay for them. Fast and abstinence became a memory and dispensations the rule. Community life had broken down and the private life had replaced it. This was the state of affairs in many of the houses of the Order soon after 1350, but the entering wedges had been driven earlier.
John Bromyard's preaching encyclopedia puts words in the mouth of a lazy friar that show how the declining spirit of the Order was hampering the ministry: "I wish to live peacefully in the cloister, reading and chanting. I do not care to hasten about the world, since this brings with it much fatigue, the great responsibility of hearing confessions and of the apostolic ministry, and the shame and labor of begging for alms." Writing about the worst state of affairs, and perhaps exaggerating for effect, John Dominici, the leader of reform in Italy, raised the veil on the abuses and pointed to their remedy: "Let them first refrain from unnecessary buildings, reintroduce the common life, give up social superfluities, spend no money at the papal court in their private interest, and then, after the example of Dominic, let them go two by two to preach and collect alms."
First Attempts at Reform
Tuscan friars made the first attempt to bolster discipline shortly after 1300. Nicknamed "spirituals," because they bore some resemblance to a Franciscan group that advocated strict adherence to the letter of the Rule and Testament of Francis, they received attention at the general chapter of 1312 and the provincial chapters of the Roman province then and subsequently. Though they did not emphasize poverty excessively, they apparently drifted into unacceptable positions which destroyed their movement. An official attempt at reform began in 1369, promoted by Stephen Lacombe, provincial of the Roman province and vicar of the master general in Italy. His adherence to the Avignon Obedience in 1378 nullified his efforts.
The influence of Catherine of Siena and her disciples led to the first permanent and successful reform movement. Their opportunity came when Raymond of Capua became master general in the Roman Obedience in 1380. During his tours of visitation Raymond found friars everywhere who were truly given to the service of God and wished to serve Him in regular discipline according to the Constitutions. In Germany, Conrad of Prussia had achieved an informal leadership over these men. When Raymond came on visitation in 1388, he gave Conrad the priory of Colmar to begin a reform there.
Raymond's next step was to universalize what he had done in Germany. With the approval of the 1388 general chapter, he sent out an encyclical calling on all the provinces to found a priory of strict observance and mendicant poverty. Once friars were formed in these houses, Raymond intended to send them to other priories, hoping in this way to reform the whole Order. The next June he appointed Conrad of Prussia vicar general over Colmar and two monasteries of nuns. By that time Conrad had thirty friars under his jurisdiction and the reform was well launched. It reached a conclusion in the German province in 1475 when most of the friars had accepted reform and were strong enough to control the provincial chapter and elect the provincial. It was the first province to reform itself. A handful of its unreformed priories were placed under a vicar general of their own. John Dominici began the reform in Italy. He introduced observance into the priories at Venice, Chioggia, and Città di Castello. He founded the Venetian monastery of Corpus Christi and encouraged Clara of Gambacorta and Maria Mancini in the monastery of Pisa.
The reformed priories and their vicars remained under the control of their provinces, but in many matters Raymond exempted them from the provincial's authority and reserved decisions to himself. These steps led later to the grouping of reformed priories into congregations, a feature of the reform not in Raymond's original plans but made necessary by unreformed friars who hampered and opposed the reform movement. Despite all resistance, it continued to gain strength. Half a century after Raymond's death, John Uytenhove estimated that there were 200 reformed priories and monasteries in the province of Rome, Lombardy, Spain, Aragon, Germany, and Saxony.
Raymond's plan of reform was superior to the earlier approaches toward renewal. They had always dealt with disciplinary problems by means of penances and legislation, multiplying them as decline accelerated. The friars could not have taken very seriously the multiplicity of prohibitions, threats, and penalties that clutter the acts of the general chapters. If they had, these would not have been repeated and increased year after year. Hugh of Vaucemain, early in the century, and John of Moulins at its middle, were groping toward Raymond's plan. Hugh planned to provide better training for novices by gathering them into novitiate houses; John sought to make Paris both a training center of studies and religious observance. Returning to their priories on the completion of their training, friars so prepared could become a good leaven. Neither proposal was carried through. Excellent in themselves, they placed too much burden on the young alone and could not have succeeded against the kind of opposition the reformers later endured. Raymond's plan was also utopian to some degree. Premised on the cooperation of all, it did not work as smoothly or well as he had hoped. But with true insight he had grasped that renewal and reform cannot be legislated but come about only when persons are strongly motivated to live voluntarily according to the Rule and Constitutions. He sought to reaffirm the religious life and reestablish the contemplative base of the Order's ministry.
The Order's fourteenth century was a very human one, reflecting both worthwhile achievement and shocking weaknesses. The zeal, sometimes sanctity, of men who sought to check decline and renew Dominican life compensated for the defects. The prayer of the mystics, the writings of scholars, the collected sermons of preachers, and the initiation of reform point to the strength inherent in the Order's timeless mission and lofty ideal. The rise of the German mystics, the holiness of women like Catherine of Siena, Clara Gambacorta, Maria Mancini, and the nuns of the German monasteries, and of men like Henry Suso, Raymond of Capua, and John Dominici highlight the Order's vitality and the reservoir of spiritual strength it could draw upon even during a time of confusion and decline.
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